High Stick Nymphing


Opening day unfolded beneath a gray sky that promised cold rain in the river canyon and snow higher up. For a school boy, it was a day of near religious significance, surpassing all other holidays except Christmas, and even that could be argued.

A friend of mine and I were dropped off on the upper Sacramento River, a piece of water rife with big boulders, frothy white water, and rainbow trout. I believed, in youthful hubris, that I was getting this river dialed, and each dark run and pocket seemed to hold anxious and eager trout. I had become master of the Mepps, pescador de Potzkies. I was also about to get an education, even on Saturday, though I had yet to realize it.

I fished up the left bank, where the ominous sky and rushing river framed perfectly the wild freedom I felt as I worked the water. Downstream though, a man was knee deep on my side of the river. He carried a fly rod, and seemed curiously oblivious to the fact that he was fishing water already creamed and fouled by me as I passed. He gained on me, and judging by his attitude, seemed contented.

He caught up just as I finished a particularly good, deep run, one which had given up a couple of plump rainbows, and even more misses. Satisfied it was cleaned out, I moved to the bank to allow the gent to pass. Instead, he quietly plodded into the bottom of the vacated run, and flipped his flies into the water, oblivious, evidently, to the futility of his endeavor. So apparently was the sixteen-inch rainbow that ran up beneath me dripping one of his wet flies out of the corner of his mouth. This was perplexing. Though uneasily, I considered the old saying, “even a blind pig finds an acorn now and again.” I weakly attempted insouciance, though once one consciously determines to appear unimpressed, it is much too late. This was not the last fish he took in that run either, and all were large by the river’s standards.

The morning was tainted. The casual crossed leg and jaunty rake of my hat as I sat on a rock appeared suddenly as the shallowest of shams. I morosely pondered after this fellow as he shuffled off up river with a gentle nod in my direction. While he plucked the river of its trout, the first raindrops peppered the brim of my hat, the surrounding rocks, and the river before me. Shivering as an upstream breeze brushed past, the future slowly dawned on me, and in it was a fly rod.

Returning to the river a week later, with an old fly rod of my uncle’s tucked under my elbow, carrying just three wet flies, I steeled myself for the decades likely required to master this skill. Perched on a large boulder near where mineral springs oozed into the river, I tossed a two-fly system into the current with very little conviction. How would I know if a trout took the fly? The old fly line snapped  the message up the rod ont the third or fourth cast, and not only the trout was hooked.

Despite observations to the contrary, high-stick nymphing is simple to master. The rudiments of the method have enabled newcomers to enjoy success in a matter of hours. The misconception of its difficulty may likely be traced to reality about nymphing in general. A world must be envisioned which lies beyond sight.

As opposed to fishing the dry, in two planes, it is a three-dimensional craft. The trout in its fluid world may move up, down and side to side. Where the fish is, aside from a few external clues, must be mentally envisioned.

High-sticking is applied primarily to pocket water, defined as any break in the current caused by an obstruction, usually a rock or boulder. Aspects of the system can be divided into three categories; understanding something of the trout’s world, reading the water, and finally, the presentation itself.

The basics of ‘trout nature’ may be summed up in a simple thought: they prefer the most amount of food with the least amount of effort, a universal principle likely held by all creatures, including ourselves. Juxtaposed against this, we know safety is fundamental to their survival. Aside from a trout’s juvenile vulnerability to other larger trout, predators come primarily from above and trout will hide beneath or behind an object in the river, or simply deep in a hole. The balance with must be maintained between their requirements for safety on one hand and food on the other, illuminate both their dilemma and the basis for high-stick nymphing strategy. Food, for the most part, comes to the trout, with the best currents carrying highest volume.  However, these currents may only be ventured into by the fish for a short time, as holding there requires an unfavorable amount of energy to be expended. What the trout requires then, is a position out of danger, out of the current, yet near enough to dart into the current to intercept any tidbit swept by. The best holding water will hold the best fish, with smaller interlopers being evicted.

Reading the water is the centerpiece of high-sticking and reflects blind nymphing at its apex.  The trout is in the pocket, holding in this calm refugium where turbulent currents abound and has only a moment to strike at the passing fly. Structure in the river suggests where this will be, and here is where the game takes on, to the outsider, an aspect of necromancy. The angler deduces where a fish is likely present by studying the structure, and a spot is fished to rather than a fish itself. In some cases, I’m told, anglers are not only able to state with conviction exactly where a fish will hit, but its size as well. Use of this knowledge has occasionally been used to impress a new girlfriend -at least until the novelty wears off- or the bugs get too thick.

The high-stick technique, otherwise know as short lining, has been around for so long that its beginnings are rather misty. Where it developed is open to some debate, though Dunsmuir, California and the Upper Sacramento River which flows through that town maintains a strong historical argument dating well back into the nineteenth century. This is rooted not only in folklore, but on the history of the patterns there as well. Of course, nymphing patterns as we know them today didn’t exist. Wet flies were employed instead, and fishing two flies was, and remains, the norm.

Since pocket water is the landscape of high-sticking, any eddy or slack water next to a current, assuming the water to be deep enough to hold reasonable fish, is the place to work. The demarcation between the current and eddy, usually behind a rock, is called the seam. The fly is presented either on the seam, or in the eddy next to the current below the rock. The pattern should drift along as much like a natural insect as possible, or one which has been swept out of the current and back into the eddy.

Holding water is divided by the minds eye into avenues or lanes, and each of these, roughly two feet apart, will want to be drifted to cover the water. Experience suggests that a trout will be unlikely to move from side to side more than this distance. I have use this knowledge to ‘pick the pocket’ of an angler just ahead, when I thought the read was right but the presentation inaccurate. A depth of two to eight feet is optimum. Shallower and the water is unlikely to hold reasonable fish, while deep than the length of the leader, hydraulics in the current result in difficulty maintaining contact with the fly. The goal is to control both the depth and speed of the fly, while minimizing slack in the system during the drift. If there is slack, a strike will likely go undetected.

Presenting the fly package to the trout is accomplished in the following manner. Work into position below a likely-looking pocket and strip some line out into the current with the rod facing downstream. Hold the tip up enough to allow the pressure of the current to keep the leader, shot, and flies of the bottom. The amount of line and leader let downstream must equal the length required to reach the top of the pocket and drift through it. The pressure from the current below will allow the line to be stripped out easily. In addition, the weight of the current will keep the rod flexed, or leaded, and a quick flip will break the tension of the current. The unwieldy nature of the system makes overhead casting an endeavor best practiced in private, and wearing your grandfather’s broad-brimmed fedora, if you value the present appearance of the ears upon your head.

Using the shoulder, elbow, and wrist, snap the fly from below, up above the seam or avenue to be drifted. The fly and shot should land far enough upstream from the holding water to allow time to sink to the desired depth, and at the desired location. If the fip is made too far upstream, the fly will snag during the entrance to the pocket, too far downstream, and the fly will drift too high above the fish.

Following the flip, the rod will be horizontal to the water upstream. For this brief moment, the downstream plane of the rod, leader and fly will be mirrored upstream. Immediately though, the current will cause the whole system to go slack and any strike will fail to telegraph up to where it will be visible in the fly line or rod tip. Now, as the fly is washed downstream into the trout’s lair, this slack is eliminated, and the depth is adjusted by raising the rod tip. As the fly tumbles further, the arm too, is extended from the shoulder, with the rod and arm together describing a straight line of about 45 degrees above the water. Here, as one can visualize, is where the term ‘high-sticking’ derives its name. At this high point, there may be no fly line actually on the water, and the line from the top guide of the rod, down to the fly out of sight in the depths of the pocket, will form a nearly vertical line.

As the fly moves through the drift, a slight tension between the fly and the rod tip is maintained by raising, then lowering the rod tip as the fly drifts along, describing an inverted crescent until the rod tip is nearly horizontal to the water downstream, when the current will wash the fly up out of the drift. The further one reaches out or up, the more fly line will be one the water. The chances of detecting a strike will always be lower in direct proportion to the amount of line out.

None of this is practiced because it looks cute. It allows the fly depth and speed to be controlled, as well as the slack minimized, in a very precise manner throughout the entire drift. High-sticking is a prime example of the adage ‘form flows function.’ The key, recall, is to not have too much line out. More important than the actual presentation is acquiring the skill to read water. For this reason alone, proficiency in high-sticking will improve all facets of one’s fishing game, and will overlap even into slick-water streams where the structure of pocket water is not present.

There are three common mistakes made while high-sticking. The first is not fishing deep enough. The view among high-stickers, when asked, “What seems to be working?” is the reply,  “About three or four split shot…” The second error is an improper drift. Unless yanked downstream by the fly line on the water -recall that most likely the fastest current is at the surface, slowing to nearly none at the bottom- the fly should drift, with a little coaxing, slower than the surface current. The goal, of course, is for the fly to drift at the same speed as a natural nymph, detached from the line.: one which has either broken loose from its moorings and is now being helplessly swept past the trout’s eye, to near and too inviting to be ignored. The third error is spending too much time in one pocket. Often I see an angler repeatedly drift the same lane at the same depth. If a good drift is executed, pick another lane or move on. While high-sticking, the angler is not sidetracked by sighting a fish, and endlessly switching patterns to induce a selectively-feeding or indifferent trout to strike.

High-sticking remains a deadly addition to the fly-fisher’s quiver, and reading pocket water is the cornerstone. On some rivers I know, large trout will seldom feed on the surface, period. Indeed, on most water during most of the season, the way to pry these rascals out, is by going down to them, not the other way around. Once this basic method is mastered, there remain nearly inexhaustible variations on the theme to play around with and discover on your own. Rest assured: while high-sticking you will lock into the best-sized fish on any given stream.

Craig Ballenger
FlyFishing & Tying Journal

















































































































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